Back in the late 60’s and early 70’s karate was the hotness. It was just starting to come over from Okinawa and karate fighters were seen as some of the toughest hombres in town. People often spoke of karateka in semi-hushed voices as it was rumored they could punch through boards, shatter skulls, and rip out people’s still beating hearts (or was that Indiana Jones II)? Anyway, the word on the street was “karate is the bomb”.
That fame grew rapidly. Soon the first few teachers that had trained in Okinawa and Japan were opening schools in the U.S. Some of those schools achieved high visibility and grew quickly, often finding that many more faces were popping in and out than were expected. Some of the more business savvy teachers realized that they could make quite a profit by charging testing fees, and promoting people through a series of ranks.
That first generation of karateka were being watched closely by a different class of people – the financial opportunists. These crafty individuals took the notion of money making through karate and multiplied it ten-fold by creating contracts, a myriad of belts, and get-rank-quick factories. They then expanded out into whole federations and took their businesses nationwide. When that happened, exposure for karate hit a climax – you couldn’t walk down the street of any small town in America without tripping over a couple of 9th and 10th dans.
Unfortunately, while karate was riding it’s sugar high, many people forgot to stop and notice that the quality (on a nationally broad level, not to say ALL quality) was declining at a rate exponential to the increase in quantity. Eventually, just like any kind of currency that becomes too abundant, the value of karate rank plummeted. A black belt was no longer awed and admired, but chuckled at because Lil 12-year-old-Johnny down the street had one too.
But then…just a few short years ago…something happened. Karate’s reign at the top of martial arts attention (alongside Tae Kwon Do) sputtered. It had fallen for a common trap – it had struggled with its own success.
MMA – The New Hotness
“Have you seen UFC?” people would ask each other in semi-hushed voices. “Those guys go into a cage and just duke it out. It’s for real. None of that hocus pocus nonsense, just real fighting.”
MMA, or mixed martial arts, is what many of the cage fighters in UFC professed to practice. In fact, many of those fighters were inspired by Bruce Lee, who had taken the first chunk out of traditional martial arts in the late 70’s. After Bruce had died his eclectic ideas took a hit and were swallowed back up by corny Kung Fu and Karate action. But UFC was a resurgence, and one that was gritty and real like the action in Bruce’s movies.
The UFC started off small and underground but became a sensation in no time. It’s popularity skyrocketed as Dana White (owner/founder) proved to be a marketing and business savant. He parlayed his federation into extremely profitable Pay Per View events. And then, in a move that left many ‘big wigs’ scratching their heads, he created a show on regular television for free consumption.
Nowadays you can’t go to any athletic store without seeing Tapout or Affliction gear. Stars like Anderson Silva are higher profile than any current boxer, and more MMA fighters are household names than ever before. Truly MMA’s star has risen and exploded.
But…looming in the murky shadows…
The Profiteers Were Ready For MMA
This is America, and to quote South Park, “if you don’t like it you can just giiit eeeouut.” In America capitalism is the rule, and martial arts profiteers know that. The people that spotted the trend of karate and capitalized on it are still around, or at least have their share of imitators and proteges.
MMA’s high profile has made it the go-to style for many potential students looking to get into martial arts, and if more people are looking for it, more profiteers are looking to give it to them. The problem, as you might imagine, is quality. There are a lot of good schools out there that teach MMA, or BJJ with MMA, or even traditional martial arts with MMA infused. These schools are building good extension programs and good core programs. But, just like with karate, they have to compete with chains, franchises, and quickie wannabes that are looking to cash in on that hot MMA buck.
In fact, in many strip malls and other locations you can see a direct transfer of where a karate school was, and where an MMA/BJJ school is now. Some entire franchises have gone ahead and made the switch.
It’s a bit painful, but it’s reality.
So How is MMA Saving Karate?
When karate was the main game in town, there were tons and tons of voices trying to get your attention. Everybody was yelling about this style or that style and what amazing secrets you could learn there. The high quality instructors who were focused primarily on quality could rarely compete. It looked kinda like this:
A bit disorienting isn’t it? Even in just this little collage it is easy to miss Tsuyoshi Chitose, the mild mannered man sitting in seiza. In this way it has been easy to miss really good karate amongst the white noise on a national level. Just imagine this picture only 10,000 times larger.
All of that nonsense is still around of course, but MMA is pulling more and more of the voices away. The blabbering snake oil salesmen are pitching a new and more attractive product. Because of that…karate seems to be quieting down a little. Just enough to start letting through those voices that have a lot of amazing things to say.
I’ve Seen it Happening
Have you ever visited a martial arts forum? There are some high quality ones out there, but generally they are places for people to yell at each other with no one ever really listening. A few years ago the style wars were raging full force in karate forums. If you wanted a reasonable discussion with people who were deeply skilled and invested in the arts, you were going to the wrong place.
One of the problems was the newness of technology and the high learning curve. Many of the most experienced karateka were not tech savvy enough like the youngsters who were bombarding the message boards. Now new technologies have been put in place that are so smart and intuitive that anyone can use them. Twitter and Facebook, for example.
I’ve started a community on Facebook, and with only slight moderation, I’ve found myself interacting with a whole bunch of bright and skilled martial artists. It’s nothing special that I did – we all simply found each other and realized it wasn’t a crazy notion for martial artists to learn from each other. Many (but not all of course) flaming and trolling fanboys have moved on to arguing about MMA matches, which has cleared a gap for traditional martial artists. Not to mention more and more great martial arts bloggers have started up their own sites to make high quality information available.
In the real world, karate instructors who truly and deeply love their art are persevering despite the lower number of total students walking in the door. Since those high quality instructors are the ones sticking around, the odds are increasing ever so slightly that interested students could find themselves learning real karate. If that’s the case, they have a much better chance at sticking around and becoming thoughtful traditional martial artists themselves. As such, there is a chance for them to perpetuate the good kind of karate rather than the paper thin kind.
Until Next Time
To the BJJ and MMA practitioners out there who are deeply invested in their art – you should know that you have some brothers in arms over in TMA (traditional martial arts) who know about the struggle you are going through and will continue to go through.
Hopefully we can all meet on the other side when the next big thing hits…whatever that may be.